I met with writer Jacob Ross Yohn and his girlfriend, visual artist Amy Swinn, now several weeks ago at The Fridge on a mild mid-December day. As we sipped our beers, we discussed a little book they’d recently created under their new DIY publishing venture, speck.press, titled An Economy of Debris.
Jacob and Amy are just good people: engaged, alive, and open. They organize community bike rides and alley cat races. They can be found gardening or being awesome dog parents. And, I can always trust Amy to be in the know about what art shows are happening where, here in Lancaster, or in NYC and Philly. (She recommended that I see the Mexican Modernism exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum, and it was one of the best shows I’ve seen in years.)
Because I’ve known Jacob since we were English majors at Millersville University, I knew that he was working on a sci-fi-ish writing project for some time. And, when we’d bump into each other, I’d ask about the project, and he’d tell me that it was going well, just slowly.
I have to admit that I was always impressed by his writerly stamina, of being able to focus on one project for such a long time. (I often start and rarely finish so many of my own writing projects.) So, when Jacob told me that he and Amy were making a hand-made printing of this book, I knew instantly that I wanted to interview them about the story and their process. I knew the time and attention they were putting in meant the book would be something special.
When I got my hands on a copy of it and read the story through a few times, and saw the final design, these thoughts were confirmed.
The story follows short, interweaving chapters each written from the point of view of one of three characters. It is set in the near future, and concerns a young women named Julia who “reads” a new style of literature called “dingvels”—books that are filled with symbolic pictures instead of words. Frank, another character, is a dingvel artist who wants his art to be of value. While the third character, Grey, is a design and printing tycoon who has everything he could possibly want in life, yet still finds himself searching for transcendence. Experimental, poetic, and dreamy, An Economy of Debris, is a story that invites rich reflection on identity, art, and how those two things might intertwine in an alternative future.
Note: This is a little longer than our typical post. It’s cut down from a nearly 2 hour conversation. So, take it slow. Bookmark it. Save it for later. Read it in chunks. Pretend the internet hasn’t been eroding our attention spans.
Eliot: When did you start working on An Economy of Debris? Was there a seed moment?
Jacob: I wrapped it up in just over 3 years. The seed moment was character-based. It was specifically the character that became Frank, thinking about an artist/creator that is hung up on one thing, paralyzed by the possible pursuits that a creator have. There’s a paralysis because it’s hard to begin. I quickly realized it’s hard to create a universe inside of just one character’s thoughts. The universe expanded by expanding the voices in it.
E: What’s interesting is your comment that it’s hard to build a universe out of one person’s consciousness. In the story, I was struck by the balance of the three characters, how there is no real explanation for the structure. It’s an experimental structure. It’s a deconstructed narrative, thematically ordered. So, let’s talk about the structure. How did the structure evolve from Frank’s meditations early on into the numbered sequence of micro-stories, building to feel like a somewhat cohesive whole? The character journeys seem to be on parallel tracks, but those tracks don’t literally overlap.
J: I got started by writing in small spurts of energy, coming across an idea that I wanted to execute in a couple of paragraphs. When I got started, I wasn’t sure about leaving numbers in the final draft of the story, but in the end, I think it actually is an interestingly unique presentation of the ideas, and actually helps the audience get through. Despite this being a story that is only 18 pages, I know it’s a task the first time through.
E: Definitely. So, let’s jump in and talk about the characters. I’m curious how you landed on the framing parts within the structure, the letters written by Julia that begin each section. If you started with Frank, then how did Julia come about? She seems to be a more dominant voice in the beginning/middle, while Grey’s voice becomes more dominant in the story, and he finishes the piece. I’m curious about how the two other characters evolved. And, how do they play into the structure?
J: Everything in this book was handwritten a hundred times before I typed it up. So, I’m not really sure when everyone else came in. Julia and Grey came in right about the same time. I wanted to start approaching the idea of this creator inventing this new literary genre, which is explained in Frank’s early chapters. They are very much like baby steps through the question: “What is this world that this creator creates?”
E: And how the creator, Frank feels about it?
J: It’s no different from any other artist—it’s pretty clear to anyone in the audience who has an artist friend who is frustrated with what they do. That’s how I feel about his attitude. Or, like someone who’s in a slump.
Julia enters as a character and a voice for the consumer of Frank’s art. So I think we see Julia in two ways, as the consumer, and also as the person who introduces the story. Her introductions have the texture of maybe two months after the events of the story. She actually has a better view of what’s going on in the introductions than she does in the moments of the story line. Her voice has shifted, but there’s no postmark for the reader, so that’s something that re-reading would make more specific for the reader. Those letters feel very different, a character that we don’t know entirely.
E: Julia’s letters, to me, almost feel directed at the reader, in an indirect way.
J: They feel like a letter from your friend that’s away studying, or who you haven’t been in contact with for a long time.
Those introductions came in later, after a couple of friends (most of whom are listed in the back of the book) had read it and were hitting me with questions like, “Where are you getting this? How should I be picturing this?” It’s a convoluted story that throws you, mise en scene, in the middle things.
The introduction is just a buffer to help to get you there. And, we also designed the book to have these great graphics that help you have a mental image. That’s something that I didn’t have a great mental image for what dingvels looked like when I was dreaming them up. Amy’s prints really helped to clarify aspects of the story that are literally sewn into the storyline.
Amy: It was interesting with the graphics too. Everyone who read early drafts had an interpretation of the dingvels that was different. Some people were thinking of inkblots, like Rorschach’s, but I thought about them more as contemporary hieroglyphics.
I thought it was something you could actually read, with representation: that’s a bear, or mountain. As soon as I made an ink drawing and showed it to our friend Dylan, he said: “I totally get this!” Now I kind of want to wallpaper our bathroom with dingvels!
E: That would amazing! So, going back to the characters…I feel like I know Julia somewhat. She is the youngest character, she’s whimsical. She sort of reminds of Clarisse from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451—she’s very whimsical, engaged, thoughtful, but a bit of a space cadet, very lovely.
And Frank, he wants his art to be meaningful, and he wrestles with the idea that it may not be. Julia, like most young people, wants a definition of self and a direction for where she is going in life. She feels self-conscious about her reading experiences and dingvels not being outside of her own self. She can’t get out of that fun house image you wove into the narrative. She wonders how can she find a direction for her life as a young adult if she’s only bouncing around inside of her own head? Which is very much a metaphor for our contemporary reality, with social media landscapes.
But Grey, he seems mysterious to me. He’s an accomplished guy. His chapters dovetail with descriptions of his house or his printing company. It’s like a machine that takes care of everything for him. And, there’s the city scape image: that the city, wherever it is, is like a refrigerator and everything has a place, a mechanical, futuristic, robotic city. So, how did Grey’s character come about, and how does he balance the perspectives in the book? I guess he wants an escape from this supposedly technological-utopian society. He’s not finding anything to latch onto within it?
J: Grey is someone that is monetarily satiated. He is a simple tycoon type that already has everything in place. So, his landscape is one that, he sees a greater part of the world than these other two characters that are very much in their systems.
Most of his story textures are heavily critical. He starts off mystically focused in on himself and how he wants to get beyond a certain place. He kind of comes back by the end of the story to, instead of thinking about himself transcending this city or this world, he settles himself down by criticizing everything around him. Instead of building himself up beyond this world, he somehow just calms himself down by tearing down everything around him and just remaining standing there. There is something else there again about social media.
E: You have this great poetic line, where Grey is described “a muted deity in the background of his own clockwork.” So, this is how any man or woman who has “arrived” feels—they just become an observer to their own life because they don’t have anything moving them anymore. He’s created all of the things that he will create, and he’s unsatisfied with that.
I want to try to get at the heart of the story here. Really, you’re dealing with three main things, I think. One, it’s a sci-fi book set in the near future, or medium near future. Two, it’s dealing with identity. The act of reading dingvels is an act of identity construction, self manipulation, or self sabotage, right? And thirdly, you’re dealing with the idea of what reading literature might look like in the future. The story depends on that idea.
Dingvels seem to me to be a wish fulfillment device, and ultimately, a comment on the narcissism in our time. The meanings of the stories are what you want them to be, or what your subconscious reveals, and memory is tied up in your own head. We are our memories, the stories we tell about ourselves, based on our memories. How did you innovate this “future literature”? Is it about revealing the subconscious, or is it about people reading into stories the meanings that they want to see? How does that relate to our shallow, social media culture?
J: In the introduction, I use the word “mass culture.” I got this term from Dwight Macdonald, I believe. After I started writing this, I came across an his essay collection called “Masscult and Midcult.” It’s a criticism of lowbrow culture—the essays were moody and criticizing the culture that is given to us, for us to think about ourselves. I think it’s unfair to say that it makes you think only about yourself. It’s just the narcissistic culture that is given to us. And, it’s more complicated than that.
We can watch Birdman and see it as this narcissistic piece, but I find it to be an interesting criticism that doesn’t apply just to you as an audience member of screen adaptations of Carver, but just as a greater whole. It makes fun of the industry that it exists in, and it makes fun of itself and of the audience at the same time. There’s a way to view that and to connect with it. It’s not just mass culture. A criticism of mass culture is that it’s merely a narcissistic, basically thing that it really just feeds your own ego.
These storylines—the dingvels—they’re not words, they’re symbols that you read into, that you let fold in over yourself and remind you of the memory bank that you already have, and maybe re-shift it around to change your memories slightly, re-mapping. Imagine a switchboard of a brain, and re-plugging in cords until all your thoughts are a dream construction instead of organized by how they actually occurred. That’s how I always imagined interacting with these dingvels really works.
E: In Julia 7, she has a parenthetical that is “Am I automatic functions? Yes, no, and yes.” It’s like a switchboard. Maybe this is a philosophical question, but what is identity now in the post-human error? Are we our functions? It seems like none of these characters resolve to find an identity that they can hang their hat on?
J: Identity is this funny thing that we get to play with, where we will have probably more than one online biography, or bio, some kind of expose that we can craft and edit. There’s a really interesting chapter in Infinite Jest where the narrator breaks down something that happened in the history, in the 90s, of Infinite Jest. Everyone got video telephones installed in their homes. Everyone started missing the fact that they used to be able to talk on the phone and pick their nails and go, “uh huh, uh huh.” With video phones, you miss that. They also had to put on makeup before they answered the phones, so everyone got masks made that they could wear so that they didn’t have to put their makeup on to answer the phone. Then everyone just put a mannequin with a mask in front of the video screen and just used a regular telephone looped into the video screen. Then everyone started just using the audio function alone. Every home in the America of Infinite Jest has a coat hanger next to the telephone screen with mask of every member of the family hanging on it, because everyone has abandoned it for regular telephone use.
All this to say that we have fake biographies that we put on the shelf and we let identify us until we get bored with it. Then we delete that social media platform and move on to the next one, or just rewrite it and buy a new mask. DFW has already written a lot more funny and cutting identity criticisms than I have.
E: I think my favorite passage is the one: “If the sea were a mythology, one images a creator god who wields a hammer, one swing for creation, and another for demolition.” This is Frank looking into the puddle, having these grandiose thoughts. So it’s really funny to me, but it’s also really poetic and beautiful. To these characters, there is no pretense of the remnants of traditional religious worldviews, in the universe of the text. The creator God in this, I imagine, is like you’re constantly creating and destroying versions of yourselves, and that image relates to later in the story, the idea of the title, An Economy of Debris, of parting around past selves. Julia has a line: “We’re always something different. We’re never the same thing.” You’re stringing versions of yourself like pieces of popcorn to fishing line for your Christmas tree. How does the title relate to the idea of dingvels? Each dingvel is a piece of debris. Julia’s memories are filled – her mind as a town. Her neighborhood is littered with garbage. What is the debris metaphor, and how does that relate to the accumulated past selves that we still have to cart around?
J: I think that line is in the last passage. Where Grey ends up going here, his last few chapters are really based on garbage and debris in general. He compares the city that he lives in to a wasted garbage refrigerator, and he breaks down and criticizes one of the aspects of how he makes money—which is through publishing dingvels. He comes out with the sentence, “We may have to begin scratching for some kind of economy of debris.” That’s him talking about selves, not trash in general.
E: He then says: “How to rake in our dispersed parts, and trade these in for a whole-constituent of a person.” It’s so good.
J: For the first two and a half years, I was writing with an outline, and I was following that. That’s how I got from finishing one chapter to what I wanted to occur in the next one. Then executing how that looks and sounds and feels and how it plays with the one before it and after it. So that kept changing. So for the first two years, I had this outline of what I wanted to see and how I wanted it to break down. At the end, all I had was guts, and I was only concerned with how it feels in the end. I really wanted to write about trash. That’s what I was feeling, not about the story. It’s how I was feeling and how the characters were feeling about the subject.
E: The state of things, of the future, of their world, of their identities, of literature.
J: In some way, what I as the author was trying to do was say “This is like this.” Of course the new literature is going to fizzle out just like the old literature. I mean literature lightly, like media that we consume. So the new media breaks down in the same way that the old one does. We walk away from it the same way, and the new technology. In some way, I think I’m expressing dingvels as if it’s a new technology. We walk away from our new technology by bearing it, and that goes into some of Frank’s later visions where he sees trees toppling over on mountainsides to reveal all technology, and Grey has a very similar imagery that he evokes in the last pages.
E: It’s almost elegaic. At the same time, it’s like a reflection on brevity.
J: Which is something that most identities should be facing: that their time on earth is probably shorter than the technologies that they interact with.
And, I wanted to say, early on when I was writing this, the project was known as Dingvels to everyone. Everyone I interacted with asked about how Dingvels was coming along. Then it turned into An Economy of Debris after I wrote that chapter and sat on it for a couple of weeks. It’s a heady title, but it’s a heady story, so I think it’s okay that there’s a little bit of weight to it.
E: So, Amy, let’s pivot to you. You designed the cover and created the book. You oversaw the bookmaking process, as a visual artist. When did you conceive of taking on the design in this project, to make this visual artifact as well?
A: So, Jacob sent me a one-page email the first month, second month we were dating—we might not even have been dating then. So I saw this very early on. I got to read every time a piece was finished, and I got to read a little more and a little more. I think I started visualizing, “okay, what would this look like? How would it physically manifest itself in a way that people could really relate to it?” We would just toss ideas back and forth constantly. Then the book really started to come into fruition, and we were like, “oh, we should really do something with this.”
We talked about sending the story out different places, and then we thought, “we should just publish it, just put it out there.” I work for Mark Wagner, and he sat on the board of a company called Booklyn. They make tons of artists books. He got me interested in Ugly Duck Press, which is a nonprofit in NYC, and they publish a lot of chapbooks, they do a lot of translations of writers who have never been published in the US before, lots of poetry. There’s something here, and I think it’s worth pursuing on a bigger level. In my mind, I was visualizing the dingvels as kind of more like contemporary hieroglyphics. I felt that you should be able to physically hold it.
E: It is an artifact of the debris of culture, especially in a world where there are so many avenues for publishing. There’s such a clutter of online magazines. It’s almost more meaningful to shepherd your own thing into the world, unmediated by anything else. There’s something really interesting about that flip.
A: My family has a self-publishing history, so none of this felt new to me. My grandmother has written a book, and you can get it on Amazon. My grandpa wrote two books on the Civil War. They all self-published. So the concept of working on something, the assembly process, it was just not a foreign process.
E: Let’s talk about the cover design, and then we can talk about the glyphs themselves—the dingvels, the dingbats. Tell me about how you conceived of the design. I guess, this is a rubber block print carving?
A: It’s actually a linoleum block, so it’s a little bit more durable. Print making is totally defined by how and where ink meets paper. This is a relief print. It goes back to the earliest form of print making, which is wood block, but wood blocks take forever to carve. Wood block is the most durable, and those are the ones you can actually see the wood block in museums from the Renaissance. This linoleum is a special grade made in Belgium. It’s pretty easy to carve. It’s pretty durable. You can print like up to 200+ prints on it, and it really holds its lines really nicely.
On the original cover, we had talked about doing something more representational. And we’d been working around that. But then I saw the Stuart Davis show at the Whitney, and he does a lot of cityscapes with really abstract things. I came back just so fired up. I really loved it and wanted to do something a little bit more abstract. I drew up a couple of covers, and this is the one that we went with.
J: We both really liked this one of the three or four that you sketched out.
E: It felt for me that it reflected the structure of the story—it was very geometric and kind of angular in the way that it was structured, but there is a lot of detail to focus and lines to draw the eye around, and different angles ultimately going to the same point, the future of identity, of communication, of media.
A: But I still wanted it to look handmade. We could photocopy it or silkscreen it, but I really thought it would be interesting, to use an arcane printing technique.
E: It feels really nice. It has the texture of a real print cover. How long did it take you to print and bind?
A: We’ve been printing them in small batches. We’re not done. As many as our dining room table and combined desks can hold, that’s how many we print at once.
J: Which is about 18-30, depending on how creative we do it, and how busy the cat is.
A: It’s an ongoing process as we sell. I think now we need to make more of the inside paper. We’ll print those again, probably sometime after Christmas.
E: So you talked about the dingbats themselves, your take on what reading a dingvel might be like. Why is the modern hieroglyphic representation important? How did you land there, versus say an inkblob, like Rorschach?
A: I tried to think of how all the different symbols and technology, how that’s becoming the new language. Like emojis, but also how you know on your phone what certain arrows mean to forward an email, how a little trash can becomes something.
J: Yeah, like a triangle is a play button.
E: And a floppy disc that means “save” even though it’s 20 years later.
A: I was thinking about that and how that has infiltrated us since the time we were little, when you were learning how to drive a car, all the world symbols. We were working at a piece at my job that dealt with all the flags that sailors used and how that creates its own language, and going all the way back to early hieroglyphics and what that looks like and how people didn’t know what that meant, but then they sort of figured it out, and they think they know. I tried to make it kind of contemporary, but still vague enough. I had a long time to visualize it, so that was nice.
E: I was just thinking of Chinese characters, this really breaks us out of our Western centric alphabet—it isn’t that far from how Chinese characters look on the page in a grid.
A: I think too, when you think about emojis, they’re a universal language at this point. They’re set up in a grid, when you text or something. I was thinking about something that could speak to everybody.
E: Tell me about speck.press—the name, the mission. Are you going to do more work?
A: speck.press came out of the idea that we like to write and make things, other people like to write and make things. We would love to help other people write and make things. I always thought of it as something that would further enhance the community, but it could also be totally selfish in the end. It’s really great to get your stuff out there. It’s great to have physical objects.
J: I mean, we definitely have the capacity for just putting this on the internet as it’s hyped up story and saying, you can read it, but reading it holding a physical thing and finishing a physical thing is much more satisfying, having a shelf with some of the stuff that you cherish. That actually is really important. So much of reading is putting it on the shelf when you’re done. It’s really satisfying. So this is a physical thing that we’ve produced. Now it feels different than just finishing a story. This is a different type of satisfaction, and it’s great, greater satisfaction. But, speck.press in its name alone is something that took us a couple of days. But we knew we were going to put a name on this. Yes, Amy and I are going to publish this story An Economy of Debris, but we want to put a name on it because we’re not done publishing stuff. We’re not done with hard copies.
E: You’re planning to continue publishing small chapbook-ish physical things?
J: Yeah, I feel like this story is a funny halfway point between zine and chapbook. But it’s also an art book, when you get it out of the envelope and you smell it. It’s actually an art piece in itself. I think it looks amazing.
A: We talked about publishing an all art edition of this, where it’s just pages and pages of dingbats to figure out on your own.
J: The story-universe in translation.